The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is held annually in mid-July to commemorate the life and music of Woody Guthrie. The festival is held on the weekend closest to July 14 – the date of Guthrie’s birth – in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma.
Daytime main stage performances are held indoors at the Brick Street Cafe and the Crystal Theater. Evening main stage performances are held outdoors at the Pastures of Plenty. The festival is planned and implemented annually by the Woody Guthrie Coalition, a non-profit corporation, whose goal is simply to ensure Guthrie’s musical legacy. The event is made possible in part from a grant from the Oklahoma Arts Council. Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, Woody Guthrie’s younger sister, is the festival’s perennial guest of honor.
The festival, which over the years has morphed into being called WoodyFest by attendees,was founded in 1998 and the inaugural festival included performances by Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, British folk-punk-rock artist Billy Bragg, Ellis Paul, Jimmy LaFave, Joel Rafael, and The Red Dirt Rangers. For the festival’s founding, the Woody Guthrie Coalition commissioned a local Creek Indian sculptor to cast a full-body bronze statue of Guthrie and his guitar, complete with the guitar’s well-known inscription: “This machine kills fascists.”The statue, sculpted by artist Dan Brook, stands along Okemah’s main street – named Broadway – in the heart of downtown Okemah.
The Woody Guthrie Coalition wanted the Guthrie family’s approval before establishing the festival. Arlo Guthrie and his sister, Nora, felt strongly that their father would want the festival accessible to all and stipulated that they would sanction the festival if it were free. The Coalition complied and for 17 years the festival was free, except for a nominal parking fee. After struggling financially for several years, in 2015 the Coalition initiated an admission fee for two venues, while still providing free music at another two venues. To keep expenses at a minimum, artists donate their time, although the Woody Guthrie Coalition pays for the artists’ transportation and lodging. According to Rafael, the festival is a wonderful event because musicians are motivated to participate for all the right reasons.